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Home > Culture and Society

The kids could well be alright

14 April 2004

Should 16-year-olds be allowed to vote? This rather earnest debate cropped up in the papers again this week, though not the tabloids, which are only interested in Young People if they're murdering toddlers, being ‘roasted' in lurid detail, or getting their tits out on page three. Bad teenager: single mum. Good teenager: luscious Lucy, 17, wants to be a TV presenter, 36C.

You could argue that the voting age is a non-issue - research suggests that Young People are even more apathetic about voting than the adult population. But the main argument against lowering the age for voting is based on a number of fairly offensive stereotypes of Young People, including:

- The drink'n'drugs'n'sex Young Person. Young People are only interested in sex and alcopops, and even if they do manage to briefly engage with politics, they're too addled on marijuana to make rational decisions.

- The immature Young Person. Young People are immature idealists who will vote for any leftie idea, however ridiculous, eg. increasing income tax to 99 per cent to Save the Whale.

- The single issue Young Person. Young People are only interested in single-issue politics, eg. animal rights, vegetarianism, anti-globalisation, legalisation of cannabis, subversive causes like CND, etc.

Of course there's a shred of truth in some of these stereotypes. But there's plenty of evidence that Young People ARE interested in politics. Whenever schools have debates and mock elections around general election time, the kids take part. Some of the debate may be at the level of ‘Is it right that people are starving while we drive around in cars?', but you can hear worse in any ill-informed adult pub debate. ('We should send in the SAS. That'll sort out the NUT.')

And another survey recently suggested that Young People are actually quite conservative, and not the teenage Trotskyites that hung around sixth forms in the 1980s, being serious and worrying about Trident. The survey in question was criticised for being highly selective, but even if only partly true it does demolish the idea of Young People being naïve Communists who'll vote Tory when they realise what the real world is all about. You'll see, young lady.

And above all, the anti-war demonstrations showed that Young People ARE interested in politics. And it's a bit disingenous to suggest they're only interested in big demonstrations where they can shout and blow whistles and generally have a good time. How many adults have you ever seen carrying placards saying ‘INTEGRATED TRANSPORT POLICY NOW!!!'?

So should people be allowed to vote at 16? It's hard to think of a good reason why not. By definition, anyone who actually bothers to walk to the voting station takes an interest in politics. In a way, they're even being the active citizen that the ancient Greek democrats wanted everyone to be (except slaves). And since when does your age automatically make you 'right' or 'wrong' about politics? If anything our great leader Tony is the embodiment of political immaturity - he led us to war but doesn't seem to know why.

What seems to underlie fears about Young People voting is that they might be - horror of horrors - idealistic. It's the old conservative false argument: 'I'm more realistic than you, so I must be right'. Politics is dominated by self-serving careerists who dislike direct debate about moral issues, so why not let the kids vote? They might even, incredibly, be right about things.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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